1910: Medmenham Abbey in Thames Villages by Charles Harper.
1201: Cistercian foundation from the Mother abbey of Woburn (King John)
1245: King Henry III instructed his officer in charge of the works at Windsor Castle to allow the Abbot of Medmenham to have one or two boats carrying stone along the river for his own works; and not to hinder him or allow him to be hindered.
1256: Abbot Roger
1295: Abbot Peter
1308: Abbot John de Medmenham
1416: Abbot Henry
1521: Abbot Richard
1536: Abbot John Talbot (the last Abbot)
1536: The monastery was dissolved by Henry VIII
1712: Browne Willis -
The walls of the north isle of the Abbey church are still standing;
it is in length sixteen, and in breadth four, yards.
The church, therefore, must have been a neat stately building, well wrought with Ashler work, and the windows lofty and spacious: it appears to have consisted of a body, two side isles, and chancels, with a tower at the west end.
1746: Home of the rather pathetic Hell fire Club where various aristocrats had themed parties involving pseudo devil worship. When one member dressed a monkey as the devil the others were so scared it ceased.
Medmenham Abbey, 1790s, Louis Belanger
Medmenham Abbey 1811
MEDMENHAM ... is situated on the Marlow road, about four
miles distant from Henley. At the time of Edward the
Confessor, the manor was held by Westan, a Thane of
that Monarch. At the conquest it belonged to Hugh
de Bolebeck, whose son having founded the abbey of
Wooburn, in the county of Bedford, gave this manor
of Medmenham to found a cell to it.
The abbey was founded January 3, 1200, for Cisterian Monks, as appears from the charter granted by King John. In 1536, it was annexed to Bisham. John Talbot was the last Abbot, At the dissolution there were but two Monks, and a yery short catalogue of effects. The clear value was £20. 6s. 2d.
After the dissolution of Bisham, in 1539, the abbey estates were given to Robert Mone and others. The family of Duffield succeeded soon afterwards ; they possessed the estate till 1779, when it was purchased by J. Morton, Esq. whose widow in 1786, sold it, together with Danesfield, to R. Scott, Esq. The manor of Broch, or Medmenham, was retained by the founder, and descended through the families of Vere, Warren, Fitz-Allen, Beauchamp, Pole, and Rice, to John Borlase, Esq. from whom it passed to Sir John Borlase Warren, and in 1781, was sold to W. Lee Antonie, Esq.
Brown Willis visited the abbey in 1718, when part of the church was remaining; it then appeared to have been a neat and stately building. The shaft of one clustered pillar of chalk is the only remain of the church to be seen at present.
Medmenham Abbey in the Henley Guide, 1826
In the last century, some men of wit and
fashion, under the title of Monks of Saint Francis, took
possession of the house, and assumed the habit, but not
the strict rules of that order. Their motto, "FAY CE
QUE VOUDRAS", still remains over the door.
The abbey occupies a very pleasant spot on the banks of the river, and forms a favourite resort for a day of pleasure to many parties during the summer. After passing the banks of Fawley Court, the Island, and the part of the Thames, under Culham Court, dotted with numerous islands, and shaded with willows, you arrive at the abbey, which in its present state, with its ivy-mantled roof and walls, forms a very picturesque object. A ruined tower and cloister have been added with much effect and propriety, and within the cloister a room (in which accommodation is afforded to the visitors) is fitted up with the same good taste, and the glare of light excluded by stained glass.
1834: Tombleson -
Medmenham Abbey, Tombleson, 1834
1859: The Thames, Mr & Mrs Hall
The wood of Medmenham
soon comes in sight; the ruined Abbey is seen among the trees; and
close beside it a pretty ferry, with the pleasant way-side inn of Mrs.
Bitmead — a domicile well known to artists, her frequent guests, one of
whom, who has since become "famous", painted a sign-board which
hangs over the door, and is of so good a quality that it might grace the
Exhibition of the Royal Academy.
The abbey has been pictured a hundred times, and is a capital subject seen from any point of view; the river runs close beside it; there is a hill adjacent — Danes' Hill; dark woods and green meadows are at hand; gay boats and traffic barges are continually passing; the ferry is always picturesque; and the artist is constantly supplied "on the spot" with themes for pictures; especially he has before him the venerable ruin — "venerable", at least, in so far as the eye is concerned. Time has touched it leniently; some of its best "bits" are as they were a century ago, except that the lichens have given to them that rich clothing of grey and gold which the painter ever loves, and added to it here and there a green drapery of ivy.
The manor of Medmenham was, in the reign of King Stephen, given
by its lord, Walter de Bolebec, to the Abbey of Cistercian Monks lie had
founded at Woburn, in Bedfordshire; and in 1204 the monks placed
some of their society here, on this pleasant bank of the Thames; hence
arose "a small monastery, being rather", as the writers of the order
express themselves; "a daughter than a cell to Wooburn".
In 1536, it was annexed to Bisham. At the dissolution, according to returns made by the commissioners, "the clere value of this religious house was twenty pounds six shillings; it had two monks, and both desyrin to go to houses of religion; servants none; woods none; debts none; its bells worth two pounds, one shilling, and eight pence; the value of its movable goods, one pound, three shillings, and eightpence; and the house wholly in ruine."
It must have undergone considerable repair early in the sixteenth century, and probably very little of the original structure now exists, although relics of antiquity may be traced in many of its "remains." That portion which fronts the Thames is kept in proper repair, and a large room is used for the convenience of pleasure-parties. The whole of the back, however, is in a wretched state of dilapidation, although inhabited by several families. The property belongs to the Scotts of Danesfield, a mansion that crowns a neighbouring hill.
Medmenham derives notoriety from events of more recent date than the occupation
of its two monks, without goods, and without debt.
Here, about the middle of the last century [ ie c.1750 ], was established a society of men of wit and fashion, who assumed the title of Monks of St. Francis, and wore the habit of the Franciscan order. Although it is said the statements contained in a now forgotten but once popular novel — "Chrysal; or, the Adventures of a Guinea" — were exaggerated, the character which the "assumed" monks bore in the open world was sufficiently notorious to justify the worst suspicions of their acts in this comparative solitude. The principal members were Sir Francis Dashwood (afterwards Lord Le Despencer), the Earl of Sandwich, John Wilkes, Bubb Doddington, Churchill, and Paul Whitehead the poet.
The motto, — "Fay ce que voudras" [ Do what you like! ], — indicative of the principle on which the society was conducted, still remains over the doorway of the Abbey House. Tradition yet preserves some Storys illustrative of the habits of "the order", and there can be little doubt that this now lonely and quiet spot was the scene of orgies that were infamous.
1875: Medmenham Abbey, Henry Taunt -
Medmenham Abbey, Henry Taunt, 1875
© Oxfordshire County Council Photographic Archive; HT2115
As to Medmenham Abbey, it can be landed at and
seen in a very few minutes, and Murray's
Handbook for Berks, Bucks, and Oxfordshire gives every information that is
The new Hotel is a great accommodation as a half-way house between Marlow and Henley, and if you go ashore, by all means pay a visit to the church and the little duck-pond; there is too a very curious old forsaken house up the hill, said to have been visited by Charles II and Nell Gwynne.
1885: Dickens's Dictionary of the Thames -
... chiefly notorious from its connection with the Medmenham monks of Francis Dashwood and John Wilkes,
There seems to be no doubt that considerable "high jinks" were indulged in by this fraternity,
and that they were not altogether what is generally known as respectable society.
But it is probable that exaggeration has had much to do with the records,
or rather the legends, of its proceedings,
as is always the case where an affectation of mystery and secrecy is maintained.
The monks of Medmenham, sometimes politely called the Hell Fire Club, lived at a time when drunkenness and profanity were considered to be among the gentlemanly virtues, and probably, as a matter of fact, they were not very much worse than other people. The audacious motto of the club may, perhaps, have had something to do with the holy horror which it excited. "Fay ce que voudras" was not a good motto at a time when doing as you pleased was about the last thing that good old-fashioned Toryism was likely to tolerate; and when amongst the people who were to do as they liked was the hated Wilkes, the prejudices of respectability were certain to be even further outraged.
"Fay ce que voudras" as it appears over a doorway at the abbey, has, in these times quite a hospitable look, and the invitation is regularly accepted by the scores and scores of picnic parties who resort to Medmenham in the summer, and whose innocent merrymaking is, at all events, an improvement on Wilkes and his monks, however much they may have been libelled.
Medmenham Abbey as it stands at present, is, architecturally, but a bogus affair, and except an ancient archway and a single pillar of the church, there is little of the ancient Abbey to be found in the present edifice. But it stands in so beautiful a position, and commands such lovely views, that its artificial appearance will be readily forgiven.
Once upon a time there was indeed a very important monastery here ...
Their rules certainly would not have suited Wilkes and his friends. "They neither wore skins, nor shirts, nor even eat flesh, except in sickness; and abstained from fish, eggs, mlk and cheese; they lay upon straw beds in tunics and cowls; they rose at midnight to prayers; they spent the day in labour, reading, and prayer; and in all their exercises observed a continual silence."
This cheerful community held possession of the abbey for several hundred years. ...
1886: Julia Isham Taylor, Down the Thames -
Late in the afternoon we passed Medmenham Abbey. That bête noir of self-restrained respectability in the 18th century is now a strikingly neat reformed appearing ruin and is probably trying to atone for the wildly defiant orgies of its past.
1889: Jerome K Jerome, Three Men in a Boat -
... nestling by a sweet
corner of the stream, is what is left of Medmenham Abbey.
The famous Medmenham monks, or "Hell Fire Club,"
as they were commonly called, and of whom the
notorious Wilkes was a member, were a fraternity whose motto was
"Do as you please," and that invitation still stands over the ruined
doorway of the abbey.
Many years before this bogus abbey, with its congregation of irreverent jesters, was founded, there stood upon this same spot a monastery of a sterner kind, whose monks were of a somewhat different type to the revellers that were to follow them, five hundred years afterwards.
The Cistercian monks, whose abbey stood there in the thirteenth century, wore no clothes but rough tunics and cowls, and ate no flesh, nor fish, nor eggs. They lay upon straw, and they rose at midnight to mass. They spent the day in labour, reading, and prayer; and over all their lives there fell a silence as of death, for no one spoke. A grim fraternity, passing grim lives in that sweet spot, that God had made so bright!
Strange that Nature's voices all around them - the soft singing of the waters, the whisperings of the river grass, the music of the rushing wind - should not have taught them a truer meaning of life than this.
They listened there, through the long days, in silence, waiting for a voice from heaven; and all day long and through the solemn night it spoke to them in myriad tones, and they heard it not.
[ Jerome obviously has read, and quotes, Dickens. He perhaps takes his clue from the word
"cheerful" - "this cheerful community" which Dickens, in his restrained humour uses.
One cannot help thinking that somehow
Jerome has, without thinking, sacrificed any appreciation of silent spirituality
in order to gain contrast for his comic moments. The silence was not repressive but purposive.
Why does he think the monks were drawn to
that spot if not to hear the voice of God speaking to them in the silence?
Walk, paddle, row, or punt alone and you will soon have to decide whether silence is grim, or, as I strongly believe, healing.
There are pressures in our modern way to make anyone spending some time alone, feel as if they are, or ought to feel, lonely and somehow pathetic. But everyone ought to spend some time alone. It is an antidote to the busy-ness of life. It gets you back in touch with what matters. The river is a great way to do this! ]
"Poor soul, 'e do look lonely all by 'isself!
Ain't you glad you've got us with you 'Enry?"
1890: Medmenham Abbey, Francis Frith -
1891: The Stream of Pleasure, Joseph and Elizabeth Robins Pennell-
Medmenham Abbey 1891, Pennell
[ This picture was not drawn by a boater.
There are two oars on starboard and only one on port.
No wonder bow is looking around anxiously!
I suspect this was a Randan (sweep oar, sculler, sweep oar) ]
We dropped down to the Abbey towards noon ... just as the first picnic party
was landing in the near meadows.
For this place, where for centuries men worked in silence and knew not pleasure; where later those who wore the brown robes obeyed no law but the "Fay ce que voudras" carved above their doorway, is now but a popular picnicing ground.
Even in its degeneracy, however it is true to its traditions. Medmenham monks, of the Cistercian order and of the Hell-fire Club, were alike in this: whatsoever their hands found to do, they did it with their might; they were no less great in vice than in virtue.
And so to-day, those who come there, picnic with all their might, and are great in the lunches they spread upon the grass and the games of tennis they play on the lawn of the big new hotel, where we saw a Gentleman Gipsy's van in the shade and a Gentleman Waterman's boat by the shore.
We, too, have lunched at Medmenham. We had been but a few weeks in England then, and I remember how we wondered at the energy of the young girls in fresh muslins who unpacked the hampers, laid the cloth, and washed the dishes; and how we thought nothing prettier than the old Abbey turned into a farmhouse, with its cloisters and ivy-grown ruined tower.
That was four years ago, and in the interval we have seen much of England's loveliness. Now, we were not so much impressed, though the Abbey makes a pleasant enough picture, with its grey ivied arches and red roof and tall chimneys, and the beautiful trees on either side. Even the tower, if it be but a sham ruin, is effective.
Lantern Slide (1883-1908) - Medmenham Abbey
Pictures by W.C.Hughes. Thanks to Pat Furley, research by Dr Wilson.
1906: Mortimer Menpes, Watercolour -
Medmenham Abbey, Mortimer Menpes, 1906
Medmenham Abbey, 2006